Volume Five, December 2004

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Without denying William Faulkner any of his merits and acclaimed achievements, so obvious to his twentieth-century readers, one may question whether at least one of his novelistic masterpieces, The Sound and the Fury, should not be taken with a grain of salt. Indisputably, Faulkner manages in The Sound and the Fury to surpass most of the contemporary novelistic endeavors of the time, yet nowadays one may no longer find Faulkner’s poetic choices as inspired and fitting. The stream-of-consciousness technique, for instance, pertains to a long-gone experimental epoch. Moreover, any comparison to James Joyce's and Virginia Woolf's approaches would show differences in result and effect. The employment of the stream-of-consciousness technique is, grosso modo, a matter of extended consistency and Faulkner's variegated stylistic pleas seem to have acted against the auspicious reception he expected – to say nothing of the baffling attitudinal stances projected onto the characters. Symptomatically, Faulkner is quite late in finding a unifying thematic principle, which is what Cowley ultimately systematically prompted him to do in the 40s. To add to his readers' frustrations, Faulkner claims to have never been satisfied with the quality of The Sound and the Fury and, therefore, to have rewritten it several times. What he contributes, in the long run, are several quite conflicting points of view on it. It goes without saying that variety, rather than repetitiveness, of one's best stylistic feats is what both writers and readers have always revered; yet one might find it hard to decry the splendid, unmistakable stylistic unity of Virginia Woolf's novels. Faulkner's, on the other hand, seem to be quite the opposite, the American author seeming to have focused less on the fashioning of a dependable, lasting style, and more on the outlining of a rampant apocryphal mythology.
In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner experiments in a bold way and on a larger scale than ever, at least as far as the novelistic discourse is concerned. At the same time, he is most aware of the fact that this may be quite risky and that he needs to be easily identified by his reader as a writer in a class of his own. The total dissolution of an author's omniscience is by far the best solution for him, and he knows that it is not only by means of his literary experiments that a writer can and should attain his creative individuality. In more than one way, therefore, the poetic situation of The Sound and the Fury is highly ironical, especially as regards its first section, which to any skeptical reader may seem to have been too extensively and unreservedly praised. Let us not forget that, undisputed as it has been for most of the twentieth century, Faulkner's literary fame oscillated a great deal in the thirties and the forties. This may have happened not only due to the fact that his masterpieces were somehow ahead of their time, and especially in spite of Faulkner’s investment of a great deal of universal meaning in his writings, which would appeal to even a larger variety of readers than Faulkner himself could imagine or expect.
There are, however, several welcomed effects of Faulkner's literary approach on his readership to be considered, and the most prominent of them is that of the shattering unifying vision that the writer employs. This is quite obvious in The Sound and the Fury; yet, at times, without being brought to the fragmentariness of As I Lay Dying, it also makes his masterpiece look short-breathed and even the very source of successive, ensuing failures. One of the reasons for this is to be linked to the challenging literary conventions in the first section of the novel, to the unsurpassable technical difficulties that they entail. On the other hand, one should also consider the rather frustrating aspects of an author's being unable to achieve in writing what cannot be achieved except in real speech, and sometimes not even so, but only in one's mind. Hence the apparent insurmountable difficulties that Faulkner has had to face in writing The Sound and the Fury.
The author sticks in this novel to a manner that he considers both modern and suitable: that of an incisive, abrupt, not exactly self-explaining, beginning. Benji's first sentences are passionate and poignant, meant to set the tone for at least the rest of this section. However, save for the difficulties and limitations to render or rather to equate in writing the wealth of one's mind, the reader may ask himself whether it is appropriate to start the novel with an autistic's inner discourse.
The reader can hardly miss the fact that Faulkner's greatest challenge in the first section of The Sound and the Fury is how to make the basic meaningful. An author cannot do that satisfactorily at all, but he may still equate it to the normal perception of things. The greatest rub, therefore, is to what extent such an attempt may be made to sound conventionally convincing. In order to critically assess that, what we have in mind is to try to read Faulkner's creative mind as well – not only Benji's, his character (no matter how blatantly that may account for an “intentional fallacy”). Undoubtedly, no matter how great a writer's creative thrusts and desires are, their results can still be deceptive or at least disputable. Thus, one may go as far as to claim that what is abnormal or basic can provide for but a shallow rendition, as when trying to probe into the mind of extraterrestrials and, in general, into anything that is alien to you. The only thing that the reader can be offered this way, instead of the empathy that he expects or even craves, is the frustration of no apparent normality. How can one assess the experience projected onto the man-child Benji otherwise than as being most anguishing? Time and again, the major problem in The Sound and the Fury is that of a poetic compromise that the conscientious reader, the addressee, can hardly overlook, go beyond. One may thus decode Faulkner's poetic statements about this novel as the more or less blatant confession of the addresser's having failed from the very beginning, of not having been able to meet his readers' expectations, while still pretending to have been quite painfully aware of that.
One aspect that we should admit to is how frustrating the first part of the novel is, also from a critical point of view: it displays the opposite of critical resourcefulness – although that was probably one of the ways in which Faulkner considered that he might block some of the adversarial criticism to his works. From both the writer's and his readers' points of view, the poetic challenge in The Sound and the Fury is twofold: (1) of how the writer can render convincingly the rather inchoate thinking of Benji, and (2) of the way the readers may figure out anything coherent out of that, i.e., recompose coherently Benji's discourse (this accounting, in its turn, for a most strenuous attempt). However, everything remains convincing as long as we consider the literary conventions proposed by Faulkner.
As a rule, what one may take as standing for frustration in the case of readers is, equally, the critics' bafflement. From this point of view, the novel is bound to lag behind poetry, in the sense that what Faulkner expects from the readers of The Sound and the Fury is more than the readers are willing to do. Faulkner seems to demand from his readers to fill in all the gaps in an imperfect, rather careless, incongruous, retelling of a story. On the average, Benji seems to speak too well for a mentally-challenged person, or the convention that he is intended to support is too shallow, lacking a solid clinical foundation. Although the general reader does not look much for the latter, a writer needs considerable documentation when intending to write fiction dealing with that. This may remind the Romanian readers of the efforts made in the thirties by Liviu Rebreanu to deal satisfactorily with a clinical case in his novel Ciuleandra, the first Romanian psychological novel, that resulted also in side effects upon the writer who had tried to identify with the insane male character. This might not have been Faulkner's case at all and, though the effort which he made in writing on this issue is considerable and the foundations of Benji's basic attitudes would not always correspond to the clinical data, the literary attempts themselves to approximate it are still worth commending. In this respect, one of Faulkner's chief allies is his having focused on Benji's perceptions, sensations, such as the fact that Caddy smelled like leaves or trees.
Nevertheless, even in this not entirely convincing poetic instance, Faulkner's empathy with the human race may be considered to have been large enough to let him intuit some of the greatest truths and basic manifestations. In the long run, the reader is persuaded to consider that there cannot be much contradiction as to the ways in which literature and psychology are able to support each other in the case of a perceptive writer. This is also the very case of Benji's keen perception of the horse or of the golf balls which are being hit. Time and again, what the reader expects from the discourse, in terms of coherence, and what the actual perception and articulateness of a retarded person have to offer, may have enacted a contradiction. This may be mainly due to the poetic impositions of the novelistic discourse not to be carried by the writer beyond a certain level of intelligibility. Thus, no matter how limited Benji's vocabulary is, it is the correctness of his tongue that betrays Faulkner as the writer standing behind his characters and making efforts to discipline his writing, rather than letting everything dissipate, fall apart, free to associate dadaistically. Benji speaks to himself the way in which the other white characters do, and if there is any eye-dialect employed in this work, it is reserved for the blacks. The only thing that would seem, though, quite obvious in his case is the greater latency in his reactions to the stimuli around, and his odd behavior. Faulkner's effort to redeem a mentally-challenged person is noteworthy and it goes with his unmistakable sympathy for children and the defenseless, vulnerable people. This is bound to make Benji, in spite of his temporary inconclusiveness, quite a memorable character, whom Faulkner employs in order to address the inexhaustiveness of human experience. In order to retell a story, Faulkner would employ several other characters not because they have been able, in turn, to tell it properly (even Benji does that), but to tell about different things seen differently in it. This is what an omniscient, unifying point of view might have easily, most successfully done from the very beginning, not only in the last section of the novel. Yet Faulkner's attempts are to give his novel a quite musical —although contestable — status, something similar to Bach's Art of the Fugue. If there is one thing that the reader is prone to find hard to ignore, it is the fact that, in experimenting with Benji, Faulkner is very mindful of the language he makes this character use and that, in this respect, he manages to employ the least distorted language with, in fact, the most distorted perception of things.
Admittedly, this reading of the novel is rather perverse, and this is due to the fact that we know the novel, we have read it. What Faulkner is interested in exhibiting here is the effect which outside events may have on Benji. He thus introduces the readers to some of the essential literary motifs in the book: Quentin's suicide, his niece's running away, Mrs. Compson's egocentrism and hypochondria. Time, the way Benji experiences it, is a continuum, and it pre-contains everything, past and present, that the characters have to sort out through their way of living.
From a stylistic point of view, the first section of the novel is a masterpiece. From a transitive, referential point of view – i.e., the point of view of telling a story – it is a failure. Faulkner knows that and intends it like that, as a pretext to attempt to tell it time and again. In his case, the handling of the stream-of-consciousness technique is most risky and it is bound to fail him, due to the compromises it goads a writer to make, rather than to any unbounded liberties.
Seventy-five years after The Sound and the Fury was published, the novel is no longer going to tell us much. The inevitable progress that has been made in the meantime in the field of fiction is not going to make Faulkner's experimental attempts appear so imposing any longer. The first part of the novel is thus rather an invitation to skip it, due to its tediousness and inefficiency in telling more than not to tell the story. Not even in As I Lay Dying will Faulkner employ the stream of consciousness for such long sections as in The Sound and the Fury. The first part of the novel is thus an extremely oral, reported part, and Faulkner's primary scope is to stress and testify to how dramatically words fail us and our projects. It is what Faulkner himself seems to have feared and, somehow, still found hard to refrain from capitalizing on, in order to make his own failures and fallacies pass for shabby triumphs somehow. It is mostly writing that may fail even the truest anamnestical discourse, with its being only marginally redeemed as an excuse for that – as a last resort of this kind in conveying speech. However, the reader may also have the impression that, in exposing Benji's thoughts and gestures, writing cannot be blamed for anything. As a rule, in the first part of the novel the writer strives as hard as he can to keep writing as basic as the speech that it is to graphically convey to the reader. This is the role that is prescribed for writing, at the level that it is allowed to interfere with speaking, as for instance in the case of Benji, to whom, save for being hugged by Caddy and for the smells, it is only speech that matters, makes sense. However, though Benji may seem to be the character who can dispense with both conventional writing and speech, his own inner world requires being written down, conveyed graphically to the reader. To him, only speech exists, not writing – i.e., what is said to him, what he can make out of what people say, the basic stimuli and responses that can be elicited that way.
To a certain extent, it seems that the grand metaphor in Faulkner's novel is aphasia – the impairment in which characters speak and are spoken to without appearing to have been able to properly render or to comprehend that essentiality of life which gets missed, which is that greater meaning that they try to articulate and to a larger and larger extent divide between them. Ironically, Benji is presented as being mentally able to express the most meaningful message about how little, associatively or not, we can make out of human existence, and of the normal/abnormal interaction of the life of sound and fury, even when not exactly told by an idiot. Faulkner seems to tell us that what we can make sense of is mostly what we cannot make sense of, and this is the graver theme of the novel that goes beyond the fragmented introduction to several more or less recurrent literary motifs.
The author also seems to tell us that, in fact, every literary project that a writer embarks on is greater and more daring than could be rendered verbally or graphically. It is both bound to go beyond understanding and to challenge it. Willful ambiguity, such as that of the time-montages, or of the Quentins and Jasons in the novel, would go second, and it cannot deter the reader from realizing quite a few things about the human condition itself – about the quality of the language we employ and how we employ it in speaking even when we may not seem to speak. At a time when Saussure dealt his daring blow to traditional linguistics and Jakobson had his own linguistic revelations by observing aphasic people's verbal performance, mostly preceding the cognitive linguistics' pointing to the intricate interrelationship between our thought and our speech, Faulkner sublimates all that in his novelistic discourse, giving the successive generations of readers plenty of food for thought. This is quite engaging on Faulkner’s part, and it is only in the second section of the novel that he feels more at ease in trying again to tell his story. There, articulate thought and articulate speech get on a par and there is a bursting desire to render in coherent words life's excruciating experiences, taking the challenge to try to make more sense of it.

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